Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Only one of William McOmish’s girls is in this horrid mockery of a great occasion, and like a good father he seizes Malvina, turns up her skirts, and beats her soundly. She is profoundly humiliated, not only by the beating but by the horrendous fact that her drawers are thus exposed before the boys, although they themselves are being beaten and have no time to jeer at her.

The mothers, and aunts, and the minister, watching this massacre of the innocents from the stoep, agree that right, and justice, and morality have been vindicated, for the only way to bring up children is to beat the Old Ned out of them whenever He asserts himself.

“He that spareth the rod hateth his son,” says the minis­ter, to general approbation, and, lest a few children dare to look resentful, he adds, “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee.”

This assertion of proper feeling gives added solemnity to the subsequent funeral, as the plume-decked hearse, with its four plumed black horses, precedes the black carriages to the church and the churchyard where the matriarch is to lie.


Not all of Malvina’s childhood is bitterness. I see her now, not much older, hold­ing her father’s hand as they make their way to the principal hotel of the little city, where there is a wonder, very suitable for children, to be seen. William is pleasantly aware that he is providing his child with a great educational opportunity.

For who is holding a public levee, to which all comers, upon payment of a modest fee, are welcome? None other than General Tom Thumb, the famous dwarf. He is declared by his escort, the great P.T Barnurn, to be only twenty-five inches tall, though in fact he is thirty-one. But there he is, before Malvina’s wondering eyes, standing on a red-carpeted dais, with his tiny wife, Lavinia Warren, and his dwarf aide, Commodore Nutt (who is somewhat taller than Tom, but obligingly stands on a lower level). Even as the newspapers have reported, “his clothes are the production of the most distinguished tailors, and his gloves are of necessity furnished to order, for nothing so small and fairy-like were ever manu­factured.” As for Lavinia, she is splendid in her wedding dress, a miracle of tiny ruffles.

William and Malvina join the queue who move slowly forward to shake hands with the living marvel. Or rather, to be touched lightly with his extended forefinger, because a rough handshake could hurt him.

Neither William nor Malvina see the look of fixed sad­ness in the eyes of the General and his lady who, like many artists, get their living by exploiting their wretchedness.

There is an occasional flash of romance in Malvina’s life when, in the streets of the town, she sees the four daughters of the Chief of the Six Nations Indians. These handsome girls wear splendid riding-habits — green velvet turned up with red — and have fine horses. The Johnson girls are certainly not squaws. They are princesses.

Was it the visit to Tom Thumb and the dashing Johnson girls that awakened Malvina’s appetite for marvels, for strange epiphanies and, as she grew older, the theatre? She yearned toward the theatre, without ever daring to imagine that she might herself be a part of it. Methodism had no place for any make-believe but its own, though from time to time entertainments took place in the basement of William’s great church that were theatrical in a gelded, sanctified way. Such a performance was an operetta for children called The Land of Nod, and Malvina, who could strum a little, coached Georgie Cooper, a limp boy with a poor ear, in his principal song:

I’m the jolly old King

Of the realm of dreams,

The dear little Land of Nod;

And whatever I say,

Or whatever I do,

My royal old head

Is depending on you;

Now isn’t that awfully odd?

Amusing, yes funny, and odd?

Whatever I do,

I depend upon YOU —

For — I’m King of the land of Nod!

Georgie’s voice was very near the adolescent break, and on the high note of “YOU” he was apt to be flat, or crack, but Malvina worked over him as if he had been a star of opera. After Georgie’s solo twelve little girls in cheesecloth executed the Dance of the Dreams, to a slow waltz. Malvina had trained them, and it was agreed that in this task she “showed talent.” Among the Methodists talent might show itself, but ought not to be dangerously encouraged.

When she began her working life even the McOmishes had to admit that some portion of her wages (she got four dollars a week) should be kept by herself, and out of this weekly dollar she spent twenty-five cents whenever it was possible on a ticket to the theatre. Her parents disapproved, but at seventeen she was hardened to disapproval and at the theatre she could ease her spirit, for two hours at least, in the presence of her idol, none other than Ida Van Cortland, leading lady of the visiting Tavernier Company. Oh, Ida Van Cortland, exemplar of womanly dignity and allurement to a hundred thousand spiritually starved girls as she bodied forth the miseries of Camille, that noblest of fallen — but spiritually exalted — women! When Camille expired in the arms of her Armand, Malvina experienced that sweet deliquescence of the loins which the truly sensitive feel when something pro­foundly affecting is made palpable on the stage.

Malvina cherished in a secret pocket of her purse the lines that had appeared in the local paper, the work of a poet who wished to remain nameless, but was easily recognizable:

TO MISS I** V ** C*******

(after witnessing her mighty performance in “Forget-Me-Not”)

Touched by the fervour of her art,

No flaws tonight discover!

Her judge shall be the people’s heart,

The Western World her lover!

The secret given to her alone

No frigid schoolman taught her: —

Once more returning, dearer grown,

We greet thee, passion’s daughter!

The poet, as everybody knew, was none other than the man who had, so many years before, wooed Virginia Vanderlip, suffered her scorn, and lost her to William McOmish.

Fallen women exalted on the stage! Malvina had cause to know how ill that sat with the McOmishes. At seventeen she had suffered one winter from “a gathered throat” which the doctor (not Uncle Vanderlip) diagnosed as tonsils, and said that they must come out. So one Saturday afternoon, when she was free of the bicycle-and-carriage works, she made her way to the doctor’s office, and he removed her tonsils, without anaesthetic, for, as he explained, it was a quick operation and the discomfort trivial.

Walking home afterward, spitting blood into her handker­chief, she was overcome with pain and weakness and collapsed against a green picket fence, vomiting blood and losing con­sciousness. The woman who was sitting on the stoep behind the fence hastened to her assistance, took her into the house, and sent a messenger to William McOmish. In due course he arrived with the family horse-and-buggy, and took his daugh­ter home, refusing to speak to the kindly woman. And when he reached home his wrath, and his wife’s, was terrible.

If Malvina had to faint, did she have to do it outside Kate Lake’s? A known house of ill-fame, where Kate Lake kept shameless girls who did unspeakable things for men of low character — the Mayor and two aldermen, among others — and was known to be a common recreation for the roisterers of the town? She had allowed herself to be taken up onto the stoep of that house where the Lord knows who might see her. Moral indignation clouded the McOmish home for days to follow.

Poor Malvina! My own grandmother, whom of course I had never known in this younger and tenderer aspect but whom, as I watched this film, in its dismal sepia shades, I suddenly knew as I had never known her in life. Knew that she had lived in the fear and bitterness of that loveless house­hold and — it seemed to me now — had felt that fear and lovelessness even before she made her sad entrance into this world. Had known it perhaps in the womb.


It was McWearie, that avid collector of scraps of information which, when gathered together, made up his outlook on life, who had told me that it was now believed by some medical scientists, and the psy­chologists who were unknown in the nineteenth-century world of Malvina’s girlhood, that children in the womb are, in their enclosed world, nevertheless conscious of the atmo­sphere of the greater world that they would join after the months of gestation; join with deeply implanted feelings that they would never be able to shake off in the seventy or more years that lay before them. Children in the womb know no language but they hear sounds, tones of voice, sense calm and also turmoil and rancour. Malvina had been begotten in a world without love and, whatever her aspirations nurtured in the theatre and in happier circumstances, would never truly be at ease in a world where love in its manifold forms is the begetter of all that makes life sweet. Malvina might yearn for love, might try her best to engender love and stimulate it in her own life, but would never be free to trust love or give herself to love without fear.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson